Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Denmark goes Nuclear

Okay, so it's something that has been bothering me for some time. In response to my last post some readers, on various sites, have said things along the lines of 'Denmark is a great place to be because everyone pulls together and is environmentally-minded, and it would be a big mistake to leave and go back to decrepit Britain.'

Well, bull and red flag. That got my brain boiling and I have three things to say on the subject of Denmark before I never mention the subject again. EVER!

If you're only interested in what's mentioned in the title of this post, skip straight to point three and ignore the rest.

Some explanation is needed.

One. Denmark does not 'pull together'. The people of Denmark do as they are told to do, think what they are told to think, and never question authority. Minds are controlled by state propaganda, and the janteloven, which I mentioned in the previous post, keeps people servile and compliant. One cannot expect any help if something bad happens to you, as I was reminded a couple of months ago when an American student was attacked on a bus here in broad daylight and beaten up for being a 'Chinese boy' while every single passenger turned a blind eye.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. I myself had a bike accident once and lay bleeding on the road for several hours, unconscious. When I came to, people were sat at the nearby bus stop listening to their iPods as if I didn't exist. Nobody offered to help me, even though I had a huge gash on my head and was liberally covered in blood. Thanks for the help guys.

A close-knit community. Did I mention that after five years of living in this block of flats I've only spoken to one neighbour out of eight? I mean, I've said 'Hello' and got either a grunt in return, or more likely, some passive-aggressive silence. I'm not counting the old woman next door, who rang the doorbell to call me something horrible based on my non-Danishness. Or the person who reported me for 'introducing a bio hazard' with my worm compost bin, leading to me having to get rid of it and euthanize my beloved team of red-wrigglers.

Two. Denmark is not the best country in the world, as if there could ever be such a thing. Almost every week there is a report saying so in the media. Danes believe their flag is descended from Heaven and that they are the chosen ones. The country supposedly has the best restaurant and food, the happiest people, the smartest society, the most environmentally friendly civilization on the face of the planet, the best city in the world to live in. I could go on.

They have been talking about this for a long time, as the narrator of this video clearly states:

The reality is that a majority of people in the world have never heard of this pipsqueak country. Please, Danes, stop it. You are embarrassing yourselves and will only regret it later!

(Is it impolite to mention also that it's also the cancer capital of the world, has a huge problem with alcoholism and suicide, is Europe's second most wasteful nation and is addicted to coal and has the fourth largest environmental footprint of any country in the world?) Is it a case of 'we think OSDS'?

Three. Relating to two. This week - and I just have to share this with someone because nobody really in the international press outside of specialist international policy websites has reported it - Denmark flunked out of pretending to be green! Yes, you read it here first. Extra, extra! Greenland, which ahem, is kind of independent and allowed to do what it wants as long as Copenhagen agrees to it, is being sold to the Chinese! Well, not all of it, just the bits that contain uranium. This, apparently, would make supposedly anti-nuclear Denmark one of the biggest exporters of uranium on the planet.

They don't want it in their back yard - they want it in yours!

But it's not just uranium. Eco-friendly Denmark wants a slice of the oil pie too. Denmark's version of the-historical-German-party-whose-name-cannot-be-mentioned-in-polite-company- said that 'Future generations will not forgive us,' if Denmark does not go for the massive oil and uranium grab on turf that it controls. And the main parties all seemed to agree.

Greenland's deputy prime minister, the eminent statesman Jens Frederiksen, gave the matter some deep thought and after a profound philosophical enquiry stated: "If everybody else can sell uranium, then we might as well. There's a lot of money in it."


Denmark's avowed social-liberal prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who is known more for her Gucci handbags than her policies, has become tight-lipped and is refusing to answer any parliamentary questions that contain the word 'Greenland'. Apparently she says it is 'not appropriate' to talk about Greenland's 'private affairs'.

This is Denmark's prime minister showing off her hoard of designer swag. No, honestly - I'm not joking.

So there you have it. When Denmark put out all those press releases about it being the greenest, most sustainable country on God's fair earth - it didn't really mean it. Apparently it's okay to tell big fat pork pies if that's what everyone else is doing. Especially if it keeps the money taps open and the investment cash rolling in. You can't expect having one of the highest standards of living in the world to just pay for itself, you know.

Now where was that writer from who wrote the story 'The emperor's new clothes'?

This particular blogger is tired of stating the bleeding obvious and will welcome spending his time doing something more positive than thinking about these matters from now on. 'Nuff said.


By the way, a big thanks to everyone who is continuing to read this discursive, peculiar, iconoclastic, mildly subversive blog of mine. This month, for the first time, I've hit the 10,000 page view mark - and it's going up by 10% a month - which is leading me to think that I might actually put some more effort into writing these posts.

As it is, I hammer them out whenever I have a spare moment at the kitchen table. Over the next couple of months I'll be 'in transit' back to England, so will be posting a bit infrequently, but when I get settled I'm planning to start writing in a more structured way.

That's what you can do when a full-time job isn't getting in the way.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Staring at the Sea

I announced recently on the pages of this blog that I would shortly be leaving Denmark with my family and moving back to the UK, where I am from. This decision was a long time in the making and the past couple of years of agonizing could be neatly summarized by The Clash song ‘Should I stay or should I go?

In the end, of course, we chose to go back to England, where at least one of us is from (my wife is from Denmark and our two young daughters were born here). Without wishing to be too reductionist about this decision, I took into consideration all the factors that I think will be defining in an era of depleting net energy and social unrest that I think we are now entering into. When all was said and done, however, I had to go with my heart and what common sense told me. It’s long been a hunch of mine that one of the most important things about positioning yourself in preparation for the great Stopping of the Music is to make sure you will be somewhere where your face fits in and the people who surround you share the same cultural values. So, no moving to Outer Mongolia or darkest Peru for this WASP. 

Perhaps the most agonizing aspect of this decision was the fact that land and farmhouses in Denmark are dirt cheap compared with Britain. I had fallen in love with the island of Møn, an idyllic island in the south of Denmark, covered in ancient Neolithic tombs, and populated by small villages filled with the kind of chocolate box thatched cottages you see on postcards. Here one could buy a 200 year old farmhouse in excellent condition with six or seven bedrooms plus outhouses, a couple of acres of land and probably an orchard or two along with some woodland and still have change from £150,000 (or $235,000). The same property in the UK, where the bubble is still rampant, would set you back up to a million pounds – around six or seven times the price in Denmark.

But, tempting as this was, when we really considered all the factors, the UK seemed like the better option FOR US.

So, without further ado, these were the factors that were taken into consideration in deciding which side of the North Sea to live on. It goes without saying that these are not the ONLY factors – but these were the ones that stuck out in my mind the most.

1 – Energy. When it comes to comparing the UK and Denmark, neither comes out very well in terms of future energy supplies. Both largely rely on oil and gas from fields in the North Sea which have double digit annual depletion rates. Neither country has much of a manufacturing sector (and what remains of Denmark’s is becoming increasingly uncompetitive due to high labour and energy costs) with high energy requirements, so most energy is used for transportation, heating, agriculture and leisure. 

Denmark’s energy policy, at least officially, is geared towards a high-tech ‘green’ future of wind turbines (of which there are already many) and solar panels to power a smart grid and a transportation system based on electrical energy stored in batteries. The country at present meets most of its energy requirements from burning coal, natural gas and post-consumer waste, with some imported power from Sweden, which produces nuclear power. Denmark has no nuclear power itself, although Sweden’s Barseback nuclear reactors are sited just across the Øresund Strait, easily visible from where I live. [Both reactors have now been decommissioned but still contain nuclear waste, and plans are afoot to make the site a short term nuclear waste storage facility as Sweden winds down its nuclear power programme.] Around a quarter of electricity currently comes from wind power, and the plan is to increase this to 50% by 2020. Denmark may be able to achieve this by trading power with Norway, which has the topography to allow for storage in the form of hydro power. Whether it does or not is a different matter. The country is aiming for 100% renewable power by 2050.

The UK doesn’t really have a coherent energy policy. Sweeping pronouncements are periodically made by ministers but these usually run into problems before anything is implemented. With the windfall from oil and natural gas now winding down serious problems are now on the horizon and rolling blackouts are likely by 2015/16, according to no less an authority than the UK energy regulator Ofgem. The country has several ageing nuclear reactors and there is a strong nuclear lobby that favours building more, despite robust public opposition. 

Renewable energy, which is bountiful in the form of wind and wave power, was growing well due to a favourable investment climate and a generous FIT for home owners, but has stumbled of late due to widespread ideological opposition by the right-wing press, and cuts due to the implementation of austerity measures. Furthermore, politicians have jumped on the hydro-fracturing bandwagon, with breathless announcements of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the rock formations beneath Britain, which has further pulled out the rug from beneath the feet of the renewable industry. The fact that this fracked gas has a very low net energy level and lies beneath privately owned and heavily populated land (unlike in the US, the UK government does not have the right to extract minerals from beneath privately owned land) does not seem to deter the enthusiasm of the fracking advocates.

Given that nuclear plants won’t be ready in time and are probably unaffordable, oil and gas is running out, the renewable energy industry is being strangled by ideologues and fracking is a mirage, it does seem likely that the lights will indeed be going out in Britain sooner rather than later. There is some coal left in the ground, although much of the capital for its extraction was laid to waste during the Thatcher years, so the best that Britain can hope for is favourable terms with Russia, as it imports natural gas at the end of a very, very long pipeline.

 2 – Transportation. Neither the UK nor Denmark are particularly large countries (and the UK is set to get a whole lot smaller if Scotland opts for independence, as seems likely), with land masses of 94,060 and 16,562 square miles respectively. Both have excellent transport links, with numerous roads, functioning rail lines and sea ports. Denmark, famously, has an excellent infrastructure for cycling owing to policy decisions made after the 1970s’ oil shocks, and its relatively flat topography. At the city level around half of all trips are made on two wheels. 

The UK is considerably less cycle friendly as the powerful motoring lobby has very effectively made sure that money is funnelled into road projects suited to cars rather than bicycles, and local councils have haphazardly implemented cycling infrastructure that in most cases doesn’t connect.

Nevertheless, Britain is criss-crossed with canals from its manufacturing days, and there is no reason why these shouldn’t go into full time use again. Furthermore the tow paths alongside these canals in many cases already double as cycle lanes. There is a national bicycle network, and things can only improve for low speed forms of transport as the number of journeys made by car continues to diminish, as it has been doing for some time now. 

3 – Food security. Neither Denmark nor the UK has much in the way of food security. At present both countries rely on very long supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems to get food into shops. If both countries had to rely solely on what was available to them from their own soils and seas then mass starvation would quickly ensue. The last time Britain was tested in this respect was during the Second World War, when a mass mobilisation of the population to grow food just about managed to feed the nation (although many were away fighting in other countries). Then, there were around 30 million residents, whereas today there are over 63 million (Denmark has about a tenth of that number). Furthermore, it must be assumed that 70 years of mechanised farming has considerably reduced the capacity of the soils to grow food, and relentless overfishing has reduced fish stocks drastically as well. In terms of wild game, there is not much that would survive more than a few short years if the population was in a state of extreme hunger and short term crisis management.

The one bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture is the rise of organic farming and local food networks. These have grown enormously in recent years as people put less trust in the corporately-controlled food web and opt instead to eat more local and more healthily. 

Denmark, similarly, has a food problem. Despite a much lower population, the relatively fertile soils cannot yield the heavily meat-based diet to which Danes have become used to. Technically, we are told, Denmark is a net food exporter, but in my local supermarket the only things I can find that are grown here are potatoes and apples, so I’m guessing that there is some statistical figure fiddling going on there. 

Farming in Denmark is in something of a crisis at present due to many farmers taking out large Swiss franc denominated loans on government advice with which to buy new machinery and other capital. Servicing these loans has now become unaffordable for many as the Swiss franc has appreciated due to its supposed safe haven status. Furthermore, food production is geared towards the production of 25 million intensively reared pigs a year and cash crops, especially rape seed, although much is also given over to wheat production. Local food coops do exist, but they are relatively few compared with the UK. Nevertheless, consumers do tend to opt for organic food, with even the cheap supermarkets stocking a good range of food grown without chemicals (although often it is imported).

3 – Governance and society. There are clear differences between the UK and Denmark when it comes to governance. For historical and cultural reasons Denmark is governed well and the UK is governed not quite so well. Both are democratic societies hung on the framework of a monarchy, with the royals enjoying almost universal adoration in Denmark, as opposed to ‘only’ 82% in the UK. Both countries have coalition governments, although only Denmark has radical factions representing parties founded on both Marxism and ultra-nationalism enjoying any power.  

Denmark is characterised by its homogenous native population and has sometimes been described as ‘more of a tribe than a nation’. There are few social strata within Denmark’s famously classless society (although I would question this assumption) and politicians must appease the entire nation, rather than one particular power group within it, and are held accountable as such. The social contract in Denmark is very strong and rigid and has been aptly described by the half-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose as the ‘Jantelov’ – a set of unwritten codes of conservative behaviour by which Danish people unwittingly live out their lives. The codas are effectively anti-individualistic in nature, requiring that the common man or woman suppress their own personal desires and ego for the common good of the state. 

The other side of the bargain is that rulers (political and monarchical) must be trusted to ensure the stability and survival of the state. Any digression from this bond of trust is treated with public opprobrium. As a result, Denmark has a very progressive tax system and it is said that ‘nobody is poor and nobody is rich’. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains that allowing everyone to enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle, while enviable to liberals from less progressive countries, nevertheless rests on the assumption that there will be a continued abundance of cheap fossil fuels and favourable trade deals with poorer nations. In other words, it can’t last.

The UK, by contrast, has something of a class war going on. Although the old system of inherited caste privilege is dying out, a new breed of ultra-wealthy people sit at the top of the ladder and use the resources of the poor to further advance their wealth advantage, and in doing so hollow out the core of society and make it more prone to social upheavals. At the centre of this black hole is the hyper-power known as the City of London (not to be confused with the actual physical city of London), a vast Ponzi scheme that holds a large amount of power over the government. The City, which enjoys very little regulation, is said to be ‘too big to fail’ although its activities have caused the UK economy to be hugely unbalanced in favour of unproductive financial derivatives at the expense of the ‘real’ economy of goods and useful services. Unfortunately, when it does inevitably fail, the likely results will be catastrophic, which brings me onto the subject of …

4 – Finance and economics. Denmark and the UK are similar in that they both hold ‘world records’ in the debt stakes. Denmark has the unenviable position as the country with the highest household debt. At something like 400% of annual income – and growing at an alarming rate – Denmark’s consumers have been spending money over the past few years like drunken sailors who just washed up on the mythical shores of Consumerlandia  and found the streets to be paved with gold VISA cards. 

Maybe it is the widely-held belief that nothing bad can happen to them and that the government will ride to rescue that has caused all of this, but it is was certainly also the case that this cheap credit was pushed onto those least able to afford to pay it back as well. As ever, it takes two to tango. Cultural factors may also play a part. Danish people like to think of themselves as ‘virtuous’ and ‘deserving’ and the Lutheran religious values of purity which are buried like undead zombies under the floorboards of the nation’s psyche, have crawled up to manifest themselves as people who live in flats where everything is painted white and decked out with expensive designer furniture. A weekend in New York to pretend to be one of the characters from Sex and the City, or a quick holiday to Thailand in the deep of winter to top up your tan is considered normal behaviour in this virtuous zombie culture. Is it any wonder that Denmark is routinely quoted as ‘the happiest country on Earth’?

Many people took out 100% mortgages in the last decade, and opted to pay only the interest rather than any of the capital. Now, with several small and medium sized banks having already crashed, lenders are forcing borrowers to pay back some of the capital – and many of them are suddenly finding they cannot afford it. A popular prime-time TV programme in Denmark is Luksusfælden – or ‘fall from luxury’ – in which insolvent families are visited by some hard-nosed financial advisors and put on a tough economic diet, which sometimes they cannot stomach.  Notable episodes have included a woman who thought that denying her children designer clothes was tantamount to abuse and broke down in tears when confronted with some perfectly good second hand clothes, which was all she could afford.

Denmark may well be a nation of superlatives. Not only does it have the world’s highest household debt, but it also has one of the world’s largest public sector (for a ‘free’ nation, continually vying with Sweden for first place) and the world’s highest tax rate. It is calculated that the marginal tax rate is as high as 70% - meaning that by the time you have earned and spent your wages, some 70% of it has gone back into the public coffers in the form of income tax, VAT and various other taxes and charges. Not that Danes seem to mind – on the contrary, opinion polls repeatedly show that given the choice between lower taxes with fewer public services and higher taxes with a greater safety net, people will always opt for the latter. It drives foreigners living here nuts, especially the Americans.

The UK, similarly, is a nation of debt junkies. Although personal debt is nothing like as high as Denmark’s, the national debt is stratospheric. The country as a whole owes about a trillion pounds, split between government debt, financial debt, private debt and business debt. The government debt is growing at a rate that makes it impossible to ever repay, no matter how much ‘austerity’ the government imposes on the bankrupt populace. This is, of course, the same situation that every European nation finds itself in after three decades of monetary expansion based on cheap credit and fairy money, but more so. With diminishing tax revenues from North Sea oil, a growing budget deficit, an elderly and retiring work force and huge financial and property bubbles there is simply no way that the UK can avoid going spectacularly bust. When it happens it won’t be pleasant.

5 – Climate change. This is already having an impact on the UK, where it has been raining heavily for half a decade now. Gone are the dreams of many who, some years back, forecast that we would have a climate similar to the south of France and that most of England would be good for growing grapes. Instead, we have a cold wet slap in the face, persistent flooding, and wild swings in temperature. Of course, this could change again as ocean currents shift, and the country (and northern Europe as a whole) will rapidly turn into an ice block if the Gulf Stream shifts to the south or peters out entirely. In this respect Denmark and the UK are in the same boat.

In terms of rising sea levels, the UK has a clear advantage over low-lying Denmark, whose highest point is Himmelbjerget (‘Sky Mountain’) which rises to a majestic 147m (482 feet). Indeed, sea levels will not need to rise by more than a few metres for much of Denmark to simply disappear into a kind of Atlantis with stylish furniture. An added worry is that as polar ice melts in the Arctic this could trigger tsunami-producing earthquakes in a process known as isostatic rebound, which would have the potential to sweep over Denmark with devastating consequences. You think it couldn’t happen? 

The UK at least has topography on its side, although certain areas such as East Anglia and the Thames Valley (where London is situated) will cease to be land. Having the resources and money to build huge defensive walls against sea rise in the future seem about as unlikely as the assumption we will be able to build floating cities or, indeed, live on the bottom of the sea like crabs.

6 – Housing. It seems odd to mention housing as a key consideration in deciding which country to live in, although in this case Denmark emerges as the clear winner. Due to the aforementioned good governance, housing in Denmark is generally of a high standard. Insulation is at standards that Britons can only dream about, which is just as well as it gets mighty cold in Denmark (it is minus 15 degrees centigrade outside right now as I type this in my super-insulated flat).

Britain, by contrast, seemed to give up building proper houses after the last war. Cheap and cheerful became the driving ideology and ever since we have constructed millions of cheaply-built identikit houses, created suburban sprawl and blighted the landscape. What’s more, these cheaply constructed houses are almost unaffordable to the average person who wants to avoid wage slavery. In fact, if one wants to buy a house in the UK that will keep you warm, won’t break the bank and won’t have bits flying off it in a gale you have to look at properties that were built over a hundred years ago. Many of these, however, have preservation orders put on them, meaning that owners are not permitted to make improvements on aesthetic grounds.

7 – Trade Links. Internal trade links are likely to prove robust in both countries due to the aforementioned good quality transportation networks. Trade with other countries, when things settle down, is likely to be with regional partners. I expect the UK (or whatever the country is called in the future) to have good trade links with France and other places in Europe, as it had in the past.

Denmark, as with many other factors, is likely to look more and more to Norway and Sweden for trade and protection. With their shared cultural and linguistic heritage, I envisage Scandinavia’s northern countries being some of the ‘better’ places to live – at least if you are a Scandinavian or can pretend to be one. I can imagine energy and fuel (in the form of wood and hydro power) being exported to Denmark from Norway, which has plenty of space and resources, perhaps in exchange for grain and other agricultural products. Denmark itself has little in the way of exploitable natural resources so it’ll be back to the land for the majority of the populace.

8 – Geopolitics. If resource wars kick off in Europe, and we can’t rule this out, then Denmark could well find itself in the firing line. This is not an enviable position to be in but the fact remains that Denmark to some extent still ‘owns’ Greenland. With various world powers eyeing Arctic oil and minerals, and even claiming ownership of the North Pole, it is unlikely that things will end up being agreed amiably over sherry. Should Denmark lay claim to Greenlandic oil, as it was suggested by Danish MPs on the morning news today, it would set itself up for a fight with Russia and perhaps China too. Hell, even Britain might claim a share. Yet it goes without saying that Russia could eat Denmark for breakfast, so without backing from, say, the United States (of which Denmark, like the UK, remains a client state) the country would have no chance of holding onto its prized possession. It can hardly be a coincidence that the ex-Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, quit his role to take up the top post at NATO. 

Anders Fogh Rasmussen's self-commissioned portrait. What message is he trying to send out I wonder?

China, it might be added, has been having high level meetings with Denmark about Greenland and all the goodies that exist there. It has offered Denmark some pretty choice morsels in terms of trade pacts, with one of the most significant being the sale of fur coats to cater to China’s exploding requirement for bling. Incidentally, Denmark is one of the world’s leading producers of mink, fox and chinchilla fur. 

The UK, by comparison, having lost all of its huge mineral-rich overseas landmasses, will continue to struggle to make itself relevant – which is a good thing in my opinion. It has been a century since the British Empire began to collapse – more than enough time to get over it – and the country will likely revert back to what it once was, i.e. a group of soggy islands off the coast of northern Eurasia well suited to sheep farming. Of course, it will likely take a few centuries to get to that point, by which time I and everyone reading this will be long gone and some of my distant descendents may well be sheep herders.

9 – Population and carrying capacity. As mentioned above in ‘food’ both the UK and Denmark will eventually have to severely reduce numbers in order to live off the planet’s natural income as opposed to its energy inheritance. At present, people in both countries largely subsist on what William H. Catton calls ‘ghost acres’. These are invisible fields in far-off places where the food is artificially produced using oil – invisible to practically everyone who doesn’t want to contemplate them. As energy, the master resource, becomes less available, so will these ghost acres.

But before that happens we have to go through the next big financial shock, which could happen any month now. Nobody knows how long Europe’s politicians and bankers can keep shoving golden eggs down the goose’s throat, but when those same golden eggs stop appearing at the other end we can expect our standard of living to start resembling what ordinarily comes out of a goose’s backside. Many people will suddenly find themselves without the inclination to carry on and commit voluntary entropy, and some will achieve this semi-unwittingly with drink and drugs. More still will end up shivering/sweating in the cold /heat and a failing medical care infrastructure will suddenly reverse the increased longevity that we have been led to expect by the media. With social care systems collapsing we can expect to see the elderly being abandoned (some would argue that is already happening) as it becomes unaffordable for the system as a whole to look after them. Disease management systems will similarly be hit by cutbacks and viruses will have a field day.

But when the rubble has stopped bouncing after a few years we might find ourselves in a position of falling population as couples avoid conception, which commonly happens in collapsed societies. Unwittingly, we may already have entered this, as fertility rates have been falling for a long time and only expensive procedures, which will likely be unavailable in the future, currently allow infertile couples to have children.

10 – Preparedness/resilience. If all of what I have written above make you wonder why I’d want to stay in either country and put myself and my family through that risk, then this last point is the remaining element – hope – to emerge from Pandora’s box after all the other forces of chaos had been let loose.

It is my steadfast belief that people in the UK – or perhaps I should say some people in the UK – are better prepared mentally and physically than their Danish equivalents.  The Transition Town movement grew from the UK, although in reality people have been practicing low impact sustainable living for decades, and despite the hollowing out of industry many small scale artisans still remain below the radar. There is a growing web of food networks, local currencies and community energy projects and the assumption of many people in the UK is that they cannot trust the government to deliver vital services to them.  This, ironically, is a strength when compared with Denmark, where people are less empowered to take over their own livelihoods, and act timidly when it comes to going against the system. The assumption here is that the government always has their best interests at heart and that all solutions come down from the top.  Have you ever heard of Occupy Denmark? No, I thought not. In this respect, the conservative janteloven, which is supposed to protect society from radicals, may in fact be its Achilles heel. 

In the UK there is strong grassroots opposition to the coalition government and its suicidal plans to build more roads, airports, nuclear power stations and fracking wells. Overcrowded Britain, for better or worse, is a country of NIMBYs, making any new capital project that is perceived to be dangerous or ugly (or both) difficult or downright impossible. I certainly want to be there to play my part in helping to stop any suicidal growth projects that might be in the pipeline for my local area. Call me a de-growther, if you like. 

Finally, and although it might sound like a bit of cliché, I really believe that the concept of fairness and sharing is etched into the public conscience. Whenever disaster strikes we tend to stop grumbling about one another and pull together to get through it as best as we can. It takes practice to stiffen that upper lip. We have developed a warped sense of humour as a safety valve for life’s absurdities and horrors, and despite decades of media scare stories about the dangers of strangers the country is still packed to the gunwales with good Samaritans the charitable folk. Furthermore, there’s a growing sense of reverence for the natural world, a stirring of the spirit that urges us to protect the Earth in all of its diversity. Is this part of something bigger? We will have to wait and see on that one.

All of the above might look like a reductionist attempt to convince myself that buying a small forest in one of the outermost appendages of the country and learning the skills of a woodsman is a good idea. If it seems that way then it wasn’t supposed to be. Reductionism and rationalisation can both be dangerous pursuits and none of us can predict how the future will be and what our place within it will look like. All of us have to learn to embrace uncertainty and proceed with caution but retain good spirits and a sense of wonder at the world in all its complexity and all its awesome beauty. That, at least, is what I intend to do. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Newspaper for a New Era?

There’s a lot of talk about ’the media’ these days and its seeming inability or unwillingness to join up all the dots when it comes to things like peak oil and climate change. Theories abound as to why this should be so, ranging from ‘The media is controlled by corporate evil,’ to ‘They are only reporting what people want to hear,’ and everything in between. We can argue about the reasons for media indifference until the proverbial cows come home, but other than highlighting the problem this does little to solve anything.

That’s why I am excited to hear about a new newspaper being launched which aims to scoop up a lot of the stories that go ‘under the radar’ and act as a focal point for the Transition movement. It’ll be a paper and ink publication for residents of the UK, and available online for everywhere else. In it, as you can see from their pilot issue, there are many articles featuring people and initiatives that are out there making a difference. In that way it will act as a focal point and inspiring knowledge base for those of us who know we are already on the long descent.

But newspapers don’t write, print and distribute themselves – these things cost money. And because of that, the Transition Free Press needs our help. They have launched a crowd funding project with the aim of raising £15,000 and there is less than a month to go to meet that target. £15,000 ($24,000) will run the newspaper for a whole year and pay for all the distribution, printing, web hosting, writing, research and editing. Believe me, that is a pretty thin shoestring!

Anyway, if you feel you can, place a tip in their hat to ensure this project stays up and running. 

In their own words:

Happy new year everyone. The first ‘proper’ edition of the Transition Free Press is fast approaching publication and we need YOU to support us. That’s all those Transition Initiatives, related groups and individuals out there.
The editorial team, contributors, business and distribution departments have been working full-on over the past few months (did we just go through Solstice 2012 and Christmas?), commissioning, writing, collating, interviewing, proofing, editing, picture researching and making connections with the Transition network (small ‘n’) preparing this unique paper for its release on February 1st.
We have now almost covered the cost of printing and postage. But we’re still nowhere near being able to pay contributors and the core team producing the paper.
Why do we need another printed paper in the world? Because the issue you will hold in your hands and read from cover to cover on the train, the bus, the sofa or the toilet, contains reports and stories you just won’t find anywhere else in print media. Stories, from the dedicated transition groups and individuals working towards the energy-leaner future that  for some is already making its presence felt.
This is the paper where you see you’re not alone in making those vital steps towards a more collaborative, less destructive way of life. Read the latest on the gift economy, food and austerity, how communities are standing their ground against fracking and facing land rights issues. Discover what climate change scientists are really saying about carbon levels in the atmosphere and find out how to get local with food growing  and production. We’ll even be introducing an agony column for those times when we all feel lost in transition.
The Transition Free Press is written by transitioners from the UK to Japan to Europe and the Americas. It can be read by everyone everywhere. Because although we might live in different worlds, we share one planet. And that planet is changing, fast.

Mark Watson, TFP Distribution

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kenya: what next?

A roadside stall in Nairobi selling signs
Towards the end of last year the company I work for sent me to Kenya for two weeks. I had never been to Africa before and my duty was to report on the various luxury lodges and game reserves that are the bait which is used to attract wealthy visitors. Tourism is important to Kenya, representing its second greatest way of earning foreign exchange after agriculture, and any hint of trouble in that restive country has a knock-on effect that is felt keenly by those managing the tills.

Despite my duty to my employer I also wanted to get a glimpse of the real Kenya – the one that is never mentioned in the glossy brochures and tour websites – and get an idea of where the country is heading in the near future. The writer Paul Theroux once remarked that travel writing, if it is decent, should be predictive in that it should give the reader an idea of ‘what happens next’ after they have read the final page. I can’t promise to match Theroux in style but here, for what it’s worth, is my account of my Kenya visit.

Passing south from Italy over the Mediterranean I looked down from my window seat aboard the jumbo I was on. Snowy peaks gave way to the glittering sea, followed by the coastal cities of north Africa and then … nothing. The Sahara seems limitless, even from 35,000 feet, and I could detect no marks left by human beings in its sandy immensity. I counted five hours of flying before I saw any evidence of human life again, and by that stage night had fallen and we had flown over Libya, Sudan and a corner of Ethiopia. I was beginning to see what they called it the Dark Continent.

Nairobi, when I landed, didn’t seem half as bad as I had been led to believe. Everyone had warned me about the ‘insane’ traffic, but clearly they had never been to an Asian city. By contrast, Nairobi seemed to be a low-rise and spread out city and the main traffic danger would seem to be dying of boredom sitting in a traffic jam. I mentioned this to the driver and he told me that the problem would soon be sorted as a new network of roads was being built by the Chinese to ease the problem. They were also building a new airport terminal, he added, with the old one being considered dysfunctional and unbecoming of a country ‘whose time has come’.

I was taken to a swish colonial-style hotel set in lush gardens somewhere near the city centre, and it was here that I got my first taste of what it means to be an mzungu (‘white person’ or, literally translated ‘one who roams aimlessly’) in Kenya. At the entrance there was a metal detector portal which people entering the hotel were walking through. As I made to do the same my arm was gently grabbed and I was steered around it. “No sir, Europeans are VIPs in my country,” said my driver. “This is for non-VIPs,” he added, which I took to mean ‘Kenyans’.

Over the next few days I got to know a bit of Nairobi and visited the office of my company. My main impression was one of tight security. Practically every building that wasn’t a shack had a wall, a gate, a guard or two and a coil of barbed wire. I was shown Kenya’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, which was a matter of national pride, and even that was heavily guarded.

‘I will take you to The Village,” said my driver. A village in Nairobi? I imagined Maasai tribesmen and mud huts, but instead it turned out to be a giant newly-inaugurated shopping mall and entertainment complex with 150 different stores. This development and others like it, I was soon to learn, was where Kenya was setting its sights. It was a familiar story and one I had heard many times before. But if Kenya wanted to become ‘like Europe’ as someone put it, then where was the money coming from? I would find out later.

Instead of a shopping mall I asked to be taken to a slum. Not just any slum, mind you, but the biggest in Nairobi. Kibera, which means ‘the jungle’ in the Nubian language, is the second biggest slum in Africa. My guide looked somewhat horrified that I wanted to go there and tried to talk me out of it. When he could see that I really did want to go there rather than The Village he went into a bit of a huff. “Why you want to go there when it is full of bad people?” he asked plaintively. 

The answer to that was that I wanted to see how people managed to live in such challenging conditions. With the slew of problems I consider are heading our way, I figured we in the industrialised world had better stop looking at people living in slums as deserving of our charity, and instead take a look at what they are actually doing to make life more bearable. 

Official estimates of how many people were living there were 170,000, packed into an area of indeterminate size. This, however, was a lie according to the young man who took me around the maze of streets, and he said there were more than a million people there. “Do you know what NGO stands for?” he asked. I knew it was a trick question. “Nothing Gets Organised,” he said, laughing as a couple of young white people walked past with the name of their French aid organisation emblazoned on their crisp tee shirts.

I had been warned that it was dangerous to walk around Kibera, but I didn’t feel in any way threatened. On the contrary, young children, of which there were many, would run up and touch my hand and then run off again giggling. “They want to know what mzungu skin feels like,” explained my guide, who had grown up in the slum and still lived there. Adults, likewise, smiled and said 'jambo' as we passed.

The slum was like any other town in that it had main roads with cars driving through, and a maze of side streets leading off them. Where it differed from a ‘normal’ town was in the fact that the ground everywhere was composed of mud saturated with plastic bags and detritus, and all the buildings were composed of scrap wood and metal. Fetid open sewers ran here and there and children swarmed around, playing with anything that it was possible to play with. Nevertheless, there were shops and stores, hairdressers, nyama choma (‘roast meat’) stalls and jewellery makers. We went into one of the latter and met the owner, who made jewellery and other artifacts out of discarded cow bones. These he sawed into manageable pieces with a jigsaw and then carved into exquisite objets d’art by hand. It was amazing what he could achieve with just a few resources and a bag of discarded bones.

A typical street in Africa's second largest slum, Kibera

We also visited a woman who helped others with AIDS, of which there were many, to make soap and other useful things. She gave me a rehearsed speech about self-sufficiency and dignity and afterwards I bought some of the things they had made, handing over a few US dollars, which is the de facto currency in Kenya for foreigners. We then went on to see a medium sized concrete building which had been constructed as a communal toilet block. The idea was simple and ingenious. One squatted down over a hole to do one’s business, which went down into a huge vat where it bubbled away and produced methane. This gas then came out of a pipe in the centre of the building and could be used for heating water and cooking. Okay, so it probably wouldn’t pass the strict hygiene standards of, say, Europe, but it did give the residents a form of energy and collected disease-spreading waste at the same time.

The slum is well known in that it was the setting for some of the scenes in the film adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener. In that story, sinister pharmacological firms used the powerless and poor slum-dwellers for experiments. My guide seemed proud of the fact (that the film was made there) but said the premise wasn’t true. Instead, he said, the big business here was in adoption, with many families from the US and Europe coming here to adopt. “Last year there were so many we arranged them into football teams and had a tournament,” he said without irony.

Grinding bones to make jewellery in Kibera

We stood on a bluff overlooking the slum, which spread organically like a pattern of tightly fitted metal shapes, and across the valley we could see a brand new development of high rise flats. These were, according to my host, new apartments that the slum dwellers were supposed to be moving into. They were constructed with Chinese money (yes, there they were again) at the behest of the government, which regarded Kibera as an eyesore and an embarrassment. 

The flats were, however, unoccupied and when I asked why I was told that the monthly rent of 10 dollars was ‘too high’ for anyone to be able to afford. And so they stand there, empty, as the numbers in the slums steadily grow.

The new apartments in the distance were 'too expensive' at 10 dollars a month

Over the next couple of weeks I bore this in mind as I travelled around the country, stopping off at places that in most cases cost hundreds of dollars a night, and even a thousand in some places. My driver began to realise that I was more interested in finding out about his country than I was in singing the praises of luxury hotels, and relaxed accordingly. He told me about the tribal strife that was at the root of all politics and therefore most of the problems of Kenya. The country, as it was inherited from the British 50 years ago this year, comprises some 43 million people divided between 40 tribes. Two rival but similar tribal groups control most of the government and business, and politics is a ramshackle affair of stitched-together allegiances, ideological loyalties and nationalistic bombast, all lubricated by money and bribes. In other words, it’s a bit like the UK. 

The thing that everyone I spoke to feared the most was the upcoming election, scheduled for March 4. The last time the country held a national election 1,500 people (at least) were killed in violence and 600,000 driven from their homes, many of which were burned to the ground. Already, the election process was in full swing when I visited, with voter registration booths set up in even the most out-of-the-way areas. Rumour had it that voters, may of whom are illiterate, would receive a two pound bag of sugar or flour if they put their X in the right box Large hoardings stood beside highways with pictures of be-suited politicians proclaiming their election promises: ‘Let’s get Kenya working’ and ‘School for every child’. So fearful was the government of a repeat of the widespread anarchy that they were driving around the handing out (Chinese gifted) motorbikes to local tribal chiefs as long as they promised to use them to ‘spread the message of peace’ to their clan members.

But violence, as I was frequently reminded by the Daily Nation, goes on all the time in Kenya. During my visit the big news was that dozens of policemen had been massacred in an ambush while trying to capture a group of cattle raiders in the northern Samburu province. Yes, cattle rustling, it seems, is big business in Kenya, although to the pastoral and nomadic Samburu it might seem more akin to genocide. At the same time, the tribe is having its ancestral lands confiscated by the government to make way for more safari reserves  and a couple of American ‘wildlife NGOs’ are implicated in this. The suspicion is that, as elsewhere, ‘backwards’ tribal people can be got rid of, stuffed into cheaply-erected buildings and bullied off their land with impunity if it interferes with the affairs of business or government  - or an unholy alliance between the two.

A typical headline from the Daily Nation
Indeed, as I type these words, news has just come of another massacre, with between 150-200 people dead, hacked by machetes and shot with bullets, in the country’s southern Tana River Delta area. What with the ethnic violence, the incursion of Al Qaeda into the northern regions (and Zanzibar) and China’s slowly tightening grip on the country, it’s a wonder that the standard rhetoric regarding the country is the incantation-like ‘moving towards prosperity’ meme. A few weeks before I left, John Michael Greer on his Archdruid Report blog published a fictional story about America losing its hegemonic grip entitled How it could Happen. The opening chapters focused on a proxy war between China and the US in east Africa over oil rights following a discovery in Tanzania. With this story in my mind I was on the lookout for evidence of its feasibility when I visited Kenya. I didn’t have to look far.

China, it seems, is getting Kenya into a slowly-suffocating strangle hold. Huge infrastructure projects are taking place around the country, with new trunk roads, highways, airports and port facilities springing up wherever one looks. The projects have brought money and jobs to Kenya, and everyone I spoke to said they were extremely grateful for them. When I asked what China wanted in return most just shrugged and said that the Chinese simply wanted to help them out. One ventured that Kenya would be sending some fish back to China as thanks. 

In Kenya everything seemed to be under construction

Only one person I met showed unease at China’s presence. She said that oil had been discovered around Lake Turkana in the north. The arid region is home to many nomadic tribes and is near the border of Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, and it can hardly be a coincidence that the Chinese have built roads leading into that area. I drove along that road one day, noting the endless stream of container trucks heading north. The containers came up from Mombasa on the coast, Kenya’s main port. Soon, however, they won’t have to go so far as China has picked the beautiful Swahili island of Lamu – a UNESCO site – to build one of its String of Pearls megaports.

My driver said the containers, many of which had Chinese writing on them, contained equipment for exploration and drilling. Someone else said that many of them were bound for South Sudan, which is experiencing a sonic boom of an economic explosion. It’s also a lawless place, he said having just spent two years working there, where a driving offence is likely to lead to an on-the-spot execution by the traffic police. People go there, he said, and come back as millionaires after only a year or two, if they make it out alive. Almost limitless wealth can be had from extracting minerals and oil and the attendant building boom, which is why he was there. “The government won’t let you take cash out from there, so people buy gold bars and smuggle them out,” he added. Much of the wealth has ended up in Kenya, hence the boom and the property bubble in Nairobi.

A container heading north from Mombasa
But there was also a human price to pay for this boom. All along the route of the new road, new-born babies have been found, many still alive, in rubbish dumps and garbage containers. Their ethnicity is a mix of Asian and African, and as such they are considered abominations and abandoned at birth to die. You don’t have to be especially sleuth-like to link the dire poverty of the average African to the oil wealth of the Chinese workers to figure out what is happening. Orphanages are appearing along the route, hastily constructed from breezeblocks, to meet the supply.

Which brings me onto the subject of aid and NGOs. If there’s one thing that seemed to unite the people I met in Kenya – both black and white – it was their distaste for, bordering on disgust of, western aid agencies. They were haughty. They drove huge SUVs and ran over villagers. They earned a fortune and do nothing. They were puppets of state governments. Interferers. Racists. Neo-colonialists. You name it, nobody I met who expressed an opinion had much positive to say about the likes of all those aid agencies whose names we know so well. 

But the main charge levelled at them was that they had allowed marginal populations living on arid land to bloom into millions of hungry mouths that were reliant on aid. Which is worse, they asked, allowing a million people to starve in the short term, or creating the conditions for tens of millions to starve in the long term? 

The accusation was that the agencies had created a dependency and thus held power over regional governments. Somalia, which shares a long border with Kenya, was a case in point. It was colonialism by proxy, they said: Do what we say and give us your oil and minerals or else we will turn off the food and you will starve. But what happens when millions of disaffected people get angry with western ‘meddling’? Does it make a difference that these are Islamic nations? The situation, from what I was told, was ugly and getting uglier with every extra mouth that was born.  

I realise that, thus far, I haven’t painted a particularly rosy picture of Kenya’s immediate future. Could it be that Britain left behind a flawed design for the nation? It wouldn’t be the first case. After all, the British managed to keep the country pacified with the liberal use of machine guns and torture chambers. But, strong as Kenya’s image is of itself as a nation, its geographical position remains a major source of weakness. Given the extreme levels of corruption that hobble the country, the Chinese interest in its resources, the ongoing militarization and spread of radical Islam around its periphery, the base tribal prejudices of the voters and the fading ability of its protector states – the US and the UK – to project power – where now for Kenya?

Speaking of the US, who would have guessed that America was building a huge web of bases across east Africa? The strategy makers at the Pentagon seem to know exactly where the focus is shifting to in geopolitical terms, as this Mother Jones article points out. But what of America’s ability to project that power in an era of unprecedented debt and political paralysis? A few years ago would the Chinese have been able to make inroads into such a vital strategic area unchallenged just as they are doing now? Again, How it could Happen looks prescient.

And what of its natural assets? Think of Kenya and think of wildlife. On my trip I was lucky enough to go on a number of game drives, and I’ll not soon forget hearing a hippo, seemingly right beside my head, outside my tent in the middle of the night. Indeed, when it comes to wildlife and safaris you can believe all the hype: Kenya is an extraordinary destination if you want to see Africa's wild animals.

But the situation there appears no less grim. Surging population growth (almost 3% a year), widespread land development and endemic poaching are taking their toll. Not all of those Chinese shipping containers are heading back home empty, some of them are full of ivory and rhino horns. The Kenyan government can’t afford to lose its charismatic mega fauna – how else could it justify 1,000 dollar a night hotel beds? – and so it is stepping up the battle against poachers. 

Some rhinos now have 24 hour armed guards, and surveillance drones and internet snooping are now being employed to catch the perpetrators. The Masai Mara, much to conservationists’ horror, is being ‘encroached upon’ by the Maasai people themselves, who happen to be canny business people and have used their new found tourism money to get more of the one thing that they equate with wealth: cows. But more cows, over time, leads to less lions and elephants. This is great for the Maasai, who now watch Manchester United on their television screens and are very big on Facebook, but bad news for the natural world in general.

'Wildlife' spotting in the Masai Mara

I was in the Masai Mara for a few days and happened to visit an eco camp near a Maasai village. It was here that Barack Obama had stayed in 2006, when he was a presidential candidate and was presumably getting in touch with his Kenyan roots. I was shown the luxury tent he stayed in and I couldn’t help but snap a picture of the impressive compost toilet that the future president of the free world must have sat upon and contemplated the lovely scenery. 

Barack Obama's compost throne
As a matter of fact, some of these lodges, isolated as they are in remote locations, are models of self-sufficiency, with solar panels, organic vegetable gardens, energy-free cooling methods and construction based on using local natural materials. It is a pity, however, that they charge so much to stay there as the logical conclusion that the average Kenyan has already reached is that a safari is only for the wealthy foreigner and not the average Kenyan; something that hungry and armed local people will not forget when the tourists stop arriving in their chartered planes. Today’s lions and hippos and impalas must seem like the playthings of the rich and powerful. Edible playthings, that is.

So where does this leave the average Kenyan? My fear is that they won’t be in for a pleasant ride. Everyone I met in Kenya was pleasant and friendly, and it was in most cases a genuine warmth and not just because I was a walking dollar sign. I’d love to believe that Kenyans could all have comfortable lives and be free of war and disease and poverty and all the other things that Oxfam says it is unfair to label Africa with, but to do so would be to turn a blind eye to reality. 

But for the time being, remember the date: March 4 2013. That’s the date we will get to see whether Kenya can put aside its tribal divisions and work at keeping itself as a fully functional nation state in the 21st century.

Epilogue: Theroux revisited

When it was time to leave Kenya I found myself stranded for some hours in Nairobi Airport due to a technical problem with the plane. I wandered around, trying to escape the incessant American TV evangelists which seem to drone endlessly from every TV set in Kenya, and found a bookshop. In it I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s latest novel The Lower River, which concerns an American man who returns to the Africa he thought he knew from his time with the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War era.

It descends into a nightmare tale and, without giving too much away, Theroux’s opinion of rural Africa is that it has degenerated along with us. And one of the main causes of that degeneracy, he seems to be saying, is the way we have abused and exploited it in the name of religion, development, charity and all the rest of it. It was a powerful read and a fitting end to my trip unstinting in its honesty. Read it and squirm.